[VIEWPOINT]Primary slugfests benefit nation

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[VIEWPOINT]Primary slugfests benefit nation

The presidential primary of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party is drawing the public's keen interest. The twists in the race, including the fierce competition among the front-runners, the unexpected victory in the Gwangju primary by Roh Moo-hyun, the party's adviser, and the claim by his chief rival, Representative Rhee In-je, that his opponents in the ruling party hatched a scheme to derail him, have made the primaries a very interesting drama. No wonder the primary is drawing increasing interest, giving the ruling party a grand success in its first ever political venture.

Everyone seems to think the winner of the primary, on which the people's attention is centered, is already decided, although the race is not over. More than anybody else, Mr. Rhee, the front-runner, who is closely followed by Mr. Roh, once seemed to have given up on the race.

The significance of the ruling party's primaries is not simply in choosing a presidential candidate, but also in how much of a contribution the nation's first "popular primary" will bring to the development of Korea's party politics.

First, we should determine whether the primaries serve to overcome "boss politics" and pave the way for democratic decision-making to take root. So far, there are signs that the ruling party is on the right track. A new multilateral leadership system was established in the ruling party after President Kim Dae-jung distanced himself from party affairs by resigning as its leader. Party members have decided to name National Assembly candidates at the approval of rank-and-file members, and the primaries are proceeding under relatively fair democratic principles. Despite these positive outcomes, situations have occurred that lead us to reserve our final appraisal of events. Mr. Rhee has accused Mr. Roh of using President Kim's influence to help him win votes in the primaries.

If Mr. Rhee's allegations are true, the primaries are not the fair, democratic race the party advertises, but a cover-up of a party system still dominated by an imperialistic party ruler. This would be an acute drawback to the development of a political democracy, dealing a serious blow to the hopes of the people. The truth must be known to all. The accusers should also present solid evidence and not spout rumors.

Second, the primary should serve to overcome regionalism embodied in regionally-backed parties, which has stymied Korean politics. No politician or party can escape criticism that they have incited regionalism to meet their own needs. Even the contenders in the ruling party election have used the support of their hometown as the basis of their campaigns. Mr. Roh's surprise victory in the Gwangju primary may have been based on a move by Jeolla province electors to select a candidate who can win votes from the Gyeongsang provinces. If this were so, the Gwangju citizens' choice had nothing to do with overcoming regionalism.

Third, an ideological war of words among presidential hopefuls from the ruling and the opposition parties should become a more wide-ranging and active policy debate among the political parties. Political activities without ideological ideas are reckless; ideologies not expressed in the form of policies are empty. Politics without an ideological framework and policy leave room for regional parries, favoritism and power struggles. Therefore, no matter who initiated the exchange out of whatever motivation, the ideological disputes and policy debates among presidential hopefuls should become more vigorous. To prevent the debate from becoming a witch hunt for communists, it should be based on specific policy issues.

Some observers say that the ideological dispute has been raised by Mr. Rhee's camp to quell the rising popularity of Mr. Roh. But they should keep in mind that Mr. Roh drew the line first when he made public a political reform idea placing reformists on one side and conservatives on the other. Dividing reformists from conservatives is possible only when the value and ideological spectrums of major politicians are thoroughly evaluated. The recent about-face by Mr. Roh, who claimed that criticism against his ideological inclination is a form of McCarthyism and that he will withdraw his plan to overhaul the political landscape, is undignified and not living up to his words. Mr. Roh's assertion that thoughts can change when situations change may be reasonable, but he should provide a detailed accounting of the changes that led him to alter his stand.

Ideological disputes will affect the course of the ruling party's primaries. The presidential election in December will be affected in a similar manner, and the voters will decide the winner by referring to the disputes.


The writer is a professor of political science at Kookmin University.

by Kim Young-jak

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